Inside the 'Constitutional Revolution' of 1937
2016 Sup. Ct. Rev. 367 (2017)
44 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2017 Last revised: 20 Jun 2019
Date Written: September 13, 2017
The nature and sources of the New Deal Constitutional Revolution are among the most discussed and debated subjects in constitutional historiography. Scholars have reached significantly divergent conclusions concerning how best to understand the meaning and the causes of constitutional decisions rendered by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Though recent years have witnessed certain refinements in scholarly understandings of various dimensions of the phenomenon, the relevant documentary record seemed to have been rather thoroughly explored. Recently, however, a remarkably instructive set of primary sources has become available. For many years, the docket books kept by a number of the Hughes Court justices have been held by the Office of the Curator of the Supreme Court. These docket books supply a wealth of information concerning the internal deliberations of the justices. Justice Pierce Butler’s docket book in particular provides a remarkably rich set of notes on the Court’s discussions of cases in conference. Yet the existence of these docket books was not widely known, and access to them was highly restricted. As a consequence scholars knew very little about the Court’s internal deliberations in the landmark cases of its 1936 October Term.
This article, which is based upon a review of all of the surviving docket books from that Term, considers what those sources can teach us about the cases comprising what some have called the “switch-in-time”: West Coast Hotel Co v Parrish, which upheld Washington State’s minimum wage law for women and overruled Adkins v Children’s Hospital; the Labor Board Cases, which upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act; and the Social Security Cases, which upheld the constitutionality of provisions of the Social Security Act establishing an old-age pension system and a federal-state cooperative plan of unemployment insurance, as well as corresponding state unemployment compensation statutes. Considered in concert with information previously known, the data revealed by these docket books shed considerable new light on the nature of the Court’s deliberations in each of these three sets of cases, on the reasons for its decisions, and on the contention that the justices wrought a “Constitutional Revolution” in the spring of 1937.
Keywords: Hughes Court, switch-in-time, Constitutional Revolution, West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, Minimum Wage Cases, Labor Board Cases, Wagner Act Cases, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin, Social Security Cases, Helvering v. Davis, Steward Machine Co. v. Davis, Court-packing
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation